A fresh perspective: New Carter County drug court staff seeks to expand services, rebrand program amid low participation, limited state funding

Sierra Rains

Studies show that around 85% to 95% of inmates who are drug abusers before they entered prison will relapse upon release.

“We’re finding that when people do go to prison and they’re released from prison, that 60% to 80% of them, they do commit new crimes,” said District 20 Drug Court Executive Director John Terry.

Whereas drug court participants have an extremely low re-incarceration rate. According to one study, three years after graduating only 6.5% of drug court participants were re-incarcerated for new offenses, Terry said.

However, the effects officials feared State Question 780, a criminal justice reform measure which changed certain non-violent drug and theft-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, would have on the drug court system have not lessened and participation rates and funding remains limited.

Amid the seemingly bleak picture for the drug court, however, is a new group of staff members looking to rebrand and expand its services.

After facing his own battles with substance abuse, David Tolbert graduated from the 20th District Drug Court in December of 2018. “It was overwhelming and nerve wracking at some points, but overall my experience as a participant in drug court was very good,” he said.

The program provided Tolbert with the structure and accountability he needed in his own recovery and now he applies what he has learned through that experience as a case manager and compliance officer for the drug court.

Tolbert is one of three new members voted onto the board of directors last winter. The three members make up half of the board with a total of six members who are seeking to take the drug court in another direction, shifting away from the idea that it is solely a punishment.

“Restoring families really is what drug court is all about. It’s not necessarily a means for someone to get out of a criminal offense,” Terry said. “It’s an opportunity for them to accept — to be clean and sober — to accept that life of recovery and to really work towards restoring their lives with their families.”

Like Tolbert, many of the new members bring something different to the board in that they have their own recovery stories.

“We have a different level of understanding as participants than some of them who maybe have not gone through it would have,” Tolbert said. “It helps show people that ‘You know what, they did it, so can we.’ It also helps with the longevity of the program.”

Following the staffing changes, the board has been exploring ways to expand the drug court’s services to address some of the short falls SQ 780 created in the system and increase mental health services.

“I think we’re going to be able to really grow this program,” Terry said. “If we can expand our services, hopefully, to look at a misdemeanor drug court or a DUI court and to start looking into those types of offenses and target those as well as provide services for maybe a mental health court and possibly look into juvenile (services).”

Drug court was designed to help people that are at least two time convicted felons and are non-violent. The program helps them stay clean and holds them accountable through regular drug tests and counseling.

“Upon being released from jail, during the program we are immediately starting to put them into a sober living environment,” Terry said.

Under SQ 780, many of those drug-related offenses, including possession of meth, heroin and cocaine, are now misdemeanors — resulting in a large chunk of the once eligible participants now continuously cycling through the county jail.

“It’s almost that that strain has been taken off of our state prisons and thrown onto our county jails,” Terry said. “So now our county jails are the revolving door where they get arrested for a misdemeanor, they bond out or they’re given an O.R. bond and they’re back out and they can get arrested again for a misdemeanor.”

Carter County Sheriff Chris Bryant said the county jail is no stranger to this problem.

“It’s just a recurring issue that happens and a lot of it is drug based, unfortunately,” Bryant said. “Methamphetamine — it affects the mentality of a lot of people. So there is a lot of mental health issues with these drugs that are being used.”

State Question 781 made it so that the money saved by reclassifying certain property and drug crimes as misdemeanors, as is outlined in SQ 780, would be used to fund rehabilitative programs throughout Oklahoma, including substance abuse and mental health treatment programs.

While the funds received from the measure have helped the district drug court maintain its preexisting mental health programs, Terry said the growth the board is seeking may be difficult.

“I don’t know that 781 has done it’s job. I don’t believe that what we are promised is being fulfilled. We could do more, actually, if we had the resources available that had been promised,” Terry said. “As far as growing mental health services, especially in rural Oklahoma outside of your metro areas, it’s proven difficult.”

Last year, Terry said the district was provided with funding from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to create a mental health court. However, due to personnel changes, he said the idea was tabled for the time being.

Though still just a “dream” at the moment, Terry said the new board is hoping to approach the idea of establishing a mental health court.

“A mental health court would just help serve them and the community to make sure that they’re taking their medication and they’re attending their sessions, their mental health sessions,” Terry said. “It would just help our community as a whole if we were able to have a mental health court.”

According to ODMHSAS, graduates of mental health courts are nearly eight times less likely to become incarcerated compared to released inmates. Program graduates also have seen a 60% drop in unemployment, a 97% decrease in arrests and an 89% decrease in the number of days spent in jail.

“When you’re driving down or walking down Main Street and you see those individuals who don’t have a home — there’s several in Ardmore who you see that are suffering from a mental illness and it’s obvious,” Terry said, adding that the board is seeking to provide free mental health services for graduates of the program, as well.

Expanding services into specialty courts, such as misdemeanor courts, DUI courts and mental health courts would benefit not only the participants, but the community.

On average, Terry said it costs the state of Oklahoma $19,000 per year to incarcerate an individual. In comparison, the average cost for a drug court participant is $5,000 per year.

“The cost savings for our community is huge. On top of that, our participants are required to have a job, to maintain a job,” Terry said. “So number one, that increases their income, it increases their responsibility to the community.”

Five years after graduating, drug court participants have been shown to bring in almost $24 million in tax revenue to the state, Terry said.

Though the participation levels in the 20th District Drug Court have remained low, dropping nearly 65% since SQ 780 went into effect in Nov. 2017, Terry said he believes the present numbers are not truly reflective of the power of the program and what the board members are going to be able to accomplish.

“We had one of our most recent graduates — one of our big success stories. He was reunited with his daughter and this was a month or so prior to graduation,” Terry said. “Just to see the joy in his life and the positive effect that drug court had on him and his family, I mean it’s just one of those things that most people don’t see drug court doing.”

Going forward, Terry said he and the board members are looking at working with the district judge, district attorney and mental health providers in the community to obtain the goals they’ve outlined and further grants and funding.

“There’s a lot of crime that is driven by substance abuse and when people can turn their lives around and that’s no longer a part of their life, the community heals also,” Tolbert said.